Saturday, January 23, 2010

Mary Toft

Born in 1701 Mary Toft, an illiterate peasant, in the presence of a doctor gave birth to several parts of small animals including rabbits, cats and the spine of an eel. As this bizarre news spread, a personal physician to George the 1st was sent to investigate and in his presence Mary gave birth to several rabbits which did not live.

The newspapers of the day made the case a national sensation. There was at the time a theory called "maternal impression", which held that a woman might become fixated on a pet or animal and it might influence the appearance of her offspring. Moved to Guilford by her doctors, Mary was again able to bear several more rabbits. A number of prominent physicians weighed in as convinced by what they had witnessed and stated that Mary was indeed giving birth to rabbits, cats feet and the occasional hogs bladder.

Above is an engraving by the great William Hogarth showing various parties who were associated with the controversy and Mary herself producing a seemingly endless stream of rabbits. All of England was fascinated by the story.
It was soon discovered that Mary had been surreptitiously purchasing rabbits and, well, hiding them internally, in order to produce them for the waiting physicians. Toft confessed, claiming that she had been taught by a "traveling" woman to effect this illusion and hoped for notoriety and financial gain. She was charged as a vile cheat and impostor. She and a male midwife, a possible co-conspirator, were tried and fined 800 pounds.

Any number of ribald poems and satirical writings appeared at the time and a number of the doctors who had been fooled by the production of the unnatural offspring had their careers deservedly ruined. Alexander Pope and Voltaire, among others wrote about the affair. Voltaire drew from it the conclusion that the English were ignorant and still under the influence of medieval superstition. Pope wrote famously;

Most true it is, I dare to say,
E'er since the Days of Eve,
The weakest Woman sometimes may
The wisest Man deceive.


Linda Crank said...

Are you telling us that you've been duped recently by a woman? (This was an interesting and strange account by the way...)

barbara b. land of boz said...

A strange little tale indeed. The engravings are nice however.
By the way, I signed up for your March workshop in Rolling Fork, MS.
Looking forward to it. I have a few questions, may I e-mail you?
Thank you again for all your hard work!
barbara b.

willek said...

What some will do for noteriety! But there is nothing new under the sun. Look at the balloon boy. Is there a neck tatoo in here somewhere?

Sidharth Chaturvedi said...

...Well, that was a strange story. Learn something new everyday. Thanks for sharing.

Philip Koch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Philip Koch said...

Once again, ringing proof that you never know what you're going to find on this blog. First the revelations about Moxie, and now a truly strange story involving rabbits! At last, I feel enlightened.

Rae O'Shea said...

Poor Rabbits.

Deb said...

This strange post deserves bad poetry.

There once was a woman named Mary
Whose offspring were strange, and, well, hairy.
Not gifted by God,
She was found out a fraud,
But her methods are what's really scary.....

But the engraving is interesting.

Simone said...

This story really "Bugs" me...little Looney Tunes humor there.

Maybe this is why Dali so revered Voltaire. He must have been impressed by Voltaire's ability see through the ruse.

Gregory Becker said...

That is absolutely bizarre behavior. I love Deb's poem. Too funny.

billspaintingmn said...

Best to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Linda: I have been duped by women my entire life. I must be duplicitous.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Good. I will see you there. Yes you may e-mail me questions.Did you know that Muddy Waters was from there?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Things never change, they only get different. There! neck tattoo.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Strange and cautionary too, don't be too trusting of women bearing rabbits.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I thought that a human interest story needed to be in the blog.I have incidentally received an enormous response to this post.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Oh,no. Rabbits absolutely LOVE that sort of thing!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Deb: that's very good,I laughed at that for a long time.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I thought that Dali was fixated on Houdon all along.

Stapleton Kearns said...

People are no less strange today.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Bill: Better to make a hat out of a rabbit.